COVER

Facing the coming storm

There will be demands for Jean Chretien’s head if Lucien Bouchard wins another mandate

Bruce Wallace November 30 1998
COVER

Facing the coming storm

There will be demands for Jean Chretien’s head if Lucien Bouchard wins another mandate

Bruce Wallace November 30 1998

Facing the coming storm

There will be demands for Jean Chretien’s head if Lucien Bouchard wins another mandate

Bruce Wallace

When the flak cleared from his now-notorious interview with the Montreal daily La Presse, Jean Chrétien solemnly promised—like some misbehaving schoolboy chalking the lines on a blackboard—that he would stay out of the Quebec election campaign. It is not certain if the Prime Minister’s travels to Asia last week were far enough away for Jean Charest’s comfort, but they at least left the Quebec Liberal leader alone with Lucien Bouchard, who is, after all, his real problem. Not that Charest was helped by Chrétien’s contention to La Presse that the Constitution could not be a buffet of powers laid out for the provinces’ pickings. During the leaders debate, Bouchard called Charest and Chrétien “the perfect pair” (one asks for nothing, one offers nothing, he jabbed). But Charest has also known, ever since he contemplated jumping to Quebec’s family-feud politics, that his real challenge was to match Bouchard as a trusted defender of Quebec’s interests. He hasn’t succeeded, and that, not Chrétien, has been the ball and chain on his campaign.

Don’t take that to mean there won’t be some screaming for Chrétien’s head if Bouchard wins another mandate on Nov. 30. Chrétien supporters acknowledge, as one Montreal friend put it, that “there’s a convergence of interests that would like to hack away at him.” The Chrétien entourage expects a short-term tempest should the Parti Québécois win and set about to create the so-called conditions for winning a referendum. Running it against Chrétien is clearly one of those conditions. And Quebec’s largely federalist business community is already muttering they would prefer the next fight against separatist arsonists be done on the shoulders of a new federal fireman. They will be looking for someone to blame if Charest, their latest great hope, succumbs in this election.

But the Chrétien gang has its own list of enemies. It starts with the Ottawa press gallery, which they accuse of agitating against the Prime Minister for the sheer self-interest of wanting some excitement in their dull lives. They add Paul Martin sup-

porters, who get more anxious every week about the shelf life of the heir apparent to the liberal party leadership. And they expect no shortage of squawking from Reformers and Tories, who will argue that a Bouchard victory means Chrétien’s time is up.

Chrétien and his unflinchingly combative loyalists are having none of it. This has been a rocky fall for the Prime Minister, but after crossing a personal Rubicon at a fundraising dinner in Ottawa this month by admitting he has made some mistakes, Chrétien is through apologizing. The Prime Minister’s entourage has taken great comfort from U.S. President Bill Clinton’s slam dunk of Washington pundits who preached impeachment. The American public disagreed, and the Chrétien crew happily suggests the media fuss over APEC security is just as out of touch. They point to polls showing Chrétien’s high approval ratings and satisfaction levels with the country’s direction are the highest in 25 years. Chrétien will take his exit cue from Canadians, not the media, they say. And they note with some disdain that the Canadian businessmen who criticized Chrétien for the “gaffe” of abetting Bouchard with the La Presse interview are the same who see nothing untoward about Loblaw’s current $1.5-billion bid for Quebec’s Provigo grocery chain. Bouchard has used that offer to undercut Charest’s claim that political uncertainty makes outside investors skittish of Quebec.

Charest may rally in the final days and win, of course, making these points moot. But should defeat come, Chrétien supporters are confident they won’t wear the loss. The margin may have been as thin as dental floss, but the Prime Minister can at least claim he beat Bouchard in the 1995 sovereignty referendum. And if Charest loses, if the most charismatic, articulate leader of a new generation of Quebec politicians cannot punch past Bouchard’s magic, then some people might conclude the Quebec premier is simply unbeatable no matter who runs against him. Why then, Chrétien might rightly point out, should Canadians go running off in a panic, looking for yet another savior?